I argued in my last column that our government is becoming dangerously dysfunctional. The showdown over the debt ceiling is only the latest in a series of unnecessary and artificial crises caused by our political leaders, who have irresponsibly turned the ordinary disagreements that constitute democratic politics into occasions for total war. Instead of legislative debates and regular legislative processes that produce outcomes that all sides can live with, we have scorched earth campaigns that result in temporary victories, but inflict lasting damage on our institutions and undermine the public’s trust in government.

Now we have to ask: Why are our political institutions breaking down, and what can we do to fix them? It is tempting just to blame the politicians for being morally worse today than they used to be. They’re the ones who are acting like spoiled children throwing temper tantrums, threatening to shut down the government if they don’t get their own way on raising taxes, or cutting entitlements, or on whatever the issue of the day happens to be.

But that won’t do: we need to explain collective behavior, not individual behavior. Besides, to the extent that digital technologies and the new social media make it easier to spot and document individual misconduct, it is likely that today’s politicians are less corrupt than their forebears.

What has changed is that our politicians have individually and collectively become much more ideological. The parties, which were formerly united less by any principle than by a desire to share out the spoils of victory, now are clearly distinguished ideologically: the Democratic Party is now almost uniformly liberal and progressive; the Republican Party is now deeply conservative.

The problem with ideology is that it turns practical debates into moral debates. Rather than pragmatically wrestling with the allocation of costs and benefits, ideologues turn every policy disagreement into a battle between absolute good and pure evil.

No wonder our politicians have no regard for institutional norms or procedural regularity: to a true believer, respect for institutional values smacks of cowardice: in the war against evil, compromise has no place.

So why have our politicians and parties become more ideological? Because that is what we, the voters, demand, and we increasingly use party primaries to enforce ideological purity: liberal Republicans, like conservative Democrats, attract challengers because party activists are more ideologically extreme than rank-and-file partisans.

It may be tempting to believe that these ideological partisans are ignorant, but the reverse is true: political scientists regularly find that the ideologically extreme activists at both ends of the spectrum tend to be more knowledgeable about politics and better informed about issues than the swing voters in the center. The philosopher Michael Oakeshott has suggested an explanation for this apparent paradox: when people without long practical experience of governing become involved in politics, they are drawn to ideological frameworks that simplify complex issues and provide clear direction on complex issues.

If that is correct, our political institutions have become dysfunctional because too many of us without direct experience in governing have become too interested in national politics.

Our politicians do not lead because we refuse to follow: we want them to follow our lead, but we are bad leaders. Lacking experience at governing and not responsible for the consequences of our political demands, we substitute ideology for the political judgment we lack.

The framers of the Constitution did not foresee the rise of political parties or the age of ideology. They expected voters to elect to Congress experienced statesmen, who could be trusted to lead, confident that the citizens would follow.

Whatever the abstract merits of the eighteenth century idea of sending local notables to a national Congress to make national policy at a far remove from the immediate passions and demands of the people, there is no going back.

As citizens, we are too well educated, too interested in the issues, and too readily able to get information about public affairs to entrust our affairs to distant elites, however experienced or patriotic they may be.

If we are to correct our dysfunctional and ideological political system, we will need to find some way to involve more citizens more deeply, more directly, and more deliberately in the practice of governing, so that all of us can acquire the experience of responsible self-government that is the true antidote for ideology.

Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.

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